The 2016 Australian roadmap for research infrastructure

Contributed by Dominique Gorse, Director, QFAB Bioinformatics.

Led by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel AO, the Australian Government is establishing a National Research Infrastructure Roadmap that will guide future priorities for strategic investments over the next decade in key national research infrastructure capabilities. A recent Issues Paper highlighted important aspects being considered for the national research infrastructure which is described as assets, facilities and services to support research that drives leading-edge innovation in Australia and that is equally accessible to publicly and privately funded users nationally and internationally.

Current, new and emerging Capabilities

Based on Australia’s national science and research priorities, the roadmap is considering capabilities requiring national scale investments to support current, new and emerging areas in the research environment. Areas and capabilities covered by the Issues Paper relevant to life science research and innovation include:

  • Health and medical science: biopharmaceuticals; cell therapies; ‘omics; biobanking; imaging; bio and health data linkage; genotypes/phenotypes; bio models.
  • Advanced chemistry and materials: in-silico design and modelling; high throughput and combinatorial preparation and characterisation methods; imaging and characterisation; biofuels; nano and micro fabrication.
  • Environment and natural resource management: big data integration of observational and biological data; imaging; model systems; ‘omics; observatories; remote sensing; sensor networks.
  • National security: biosecurity

The Issues Paper envisages that data science will be key to all these areas and will require advances in bioinformatics, integrative analysis, visualisation and software development, with an increased sophistication in computing and data infrastructures that support the data life cycle:

  • Underpinning research infrastructure: High performance computing; high capacity networks; access and authentication; digitisation
  • Data for research and discoverability: Cloud provision of collaboration environments, computing and storage; provision of virtual labs (community-oriented online environments bringing together data, models, tools and workflows); integrated environments to make research data Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable (FAIR).

Investments in international facilities and in skills

Two interesting aspects being considered by the Issues Paper are whether the Australian national research infrastructure investment should assist with access to international facilities and whether research workforce skills should be considered a research infrastructure issue.

In addition to the fact that some research domains require access to globally unique research infrastructure, the Issues Paper recognises the increased importance of the international dimension of research infrastructure. In the domain of health and life-science information, I would argue that Australia needs a strong engagement with international data resources in order to increase the value of research data. Beyond accessing and contributing data assets, it would be beneficial for Australia to have a more active participation by “having a seat at the table” of such international organisations. As this often requires membership and funding for participation in excess of the capacity of any single institution, having selected international engagements funded by national infrastructure investments would be a good outcome. ELIXIR in Europe and BD2K in North America are for example two initiatives often cited by the Australian bioinformatics community.

The importance of skills is being considered at two levels by the Issues Paper. Firstly, it is recognised that the specialised skills of the staff supporting the infrastructure and their ability to effectively engage with researchers are all essential for the sustainability of the research infrastructure. Secondly, as researchers are both consumer and producer of data assets, it is widely acknowledged that the optimal impact and return on investment of the research infrastructure can only be achieved if researchers have the required skills to use and contribute to the infrastructure. Up-skilling researchers in data literacy and in tool development is thus a vital requirement that the research infrastructure should address. It is thus anticipated that the roadmap will consider skills retention and development as part of the infrastructure investment. I believe that this would lead to significant changes for the career paths of research support staff and to the development of a coordinated bioinformatics training strategy and delivery across the nation.

The next step for the 2016 Roadmap will be the publication of an Exposure Draft that will set out the key priority areas for investments in creation, re-investment, decommissioning or defunding of projects and facilities. Following further consultation, the final Roadmap will be recommended to the Australian Government. This framework and investment strategy will have a strong impact on research and innovation in life science research for the next ten years.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of QCIF or QFAB Bioinformatics.

 

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